China has reacted to the discovery of a highly contagious form of avian flu in two Benton County backyard flocks by banning all U.S. poultry, eggs and poultry products.
With its growing middle class, China is the sixth-largest export market for the U.S. poultry industry, with exports worth almost $272 million for most of last year.
Most of America’s poultry producers are located outside of Washington and Oregon, but international bans are hitting them hard in the wake of the avian flu outbreaks in those two states. Washington’s top exports to China are frozen potatoes, wheat, cherries, frozen fish and other seafood.
“There’s absolutely no justification for China to take such a drastic action,” said James Sumner, president of the USA Poultry & Egg Export Council. “In fact, these isolated and remote incidents are hundreds if not thousands of miles away from major poultry and egg production areas.”
This form of avian flu is not contagious to humans and has not been found in any commercial flocks. Eggs and meat from infected birds are even safe for human consumption, as long as they are cooked.
At one point, China was the largest export market for U.S. poultry and poultry products, Sumner told the Herald. The bans China has placed on individual states and duties pushed on U.S. poultry imports are among the reasons that China no longer is the largest export market, although it remains critical. U.S poultry exports last year exceeded $6 billion.
China’s domestic poultry industry also could be hurt by the ban because it applies to live chickens, including breeding stock. The U.S. is the world’s largest producer of chickens for breeding stock, providing about 90 percent of the world’s supply, Sumner said.
A shortage of breeding stock could worsen global hunger problems. It only takes about 2 pounds of feed to produce each pound of chicken meat, Sumner said.
China has a history of banning poultry from U.S. states. The country already banned poultry and poultry products from California, Arkansas, New York, Wisconsin and New Jersey prior to announcing the nationwide ban Monday, and it lifted a seven-year ban on Virginia over a single incident of less-contagious avian flu just a few months ago, Sumner said.
“We just really don’t know what to expect with this situation,” Sumner said.
It’s among the latest trade restrictions placed on U.S. poultry after the discovery of highly contagious avian flu in wild and backyard birds in the Northwest. The European Union, South Korea and South Africa all banned U.S. poultry, eggs and other poultry products. Most nations placed specific trade restrictions on Washington and Oregon.
Hong Kong specifically banned poultry and poultry products from Benton County.
Sumner said he believes bans of any kind should not be necessary, because no one has found avian flu in any commercial U.S. flocks.
China’s nationwide ban is contrary to international guidelines established by the World Organization for Animal Health for responding to isolated incidents, he said. The organization recommends placing trade restrictions only on the regions where avian flu has been detected to minimize the harm to international trade.
The federal and state agriculture departments already have taken steps to control the chances of avian flu spreading and to reassure export markets that the situation is under control.
The chickens, turkeys, ducks, guinea fowl and other birds belonging to a Benton City backyard flock and a Richland flock were euthanized last week to control the spread of disease. More than 700 birds from the two flocks — which had direct contact with each other — died in the past few weeks.
It’s likely the Benton City flock contracted avian flu from migrating wild waterfowl, which are known carriers of the disease. The flock had access to a pond that also was used by wild waterfowl.
Veterinarians from the U.S. and state agriculture departments are visiting properties within about two miles of the Benton City and Richland flocks to take samples from poultry and waterfowl to test for avian influenza. It’s a precautionary measure to make sure that they have contained the disease.
Officials placed on much of the Tri-Cities a quarantine on the movement of poultry and waterfowl, eggs and other poultry products.
So far, one Tri-City business has received permission to deliver eggs within most of the quarantine area. Red Mountain Egg Farm of Benton City will be able to deliver their brown, farm-fresh eggs to about 75 percent of their normal customers in Richland, West Richland and Kennewick, said owner Mike Mackey.
But he can’t deliver eggs outside of the quarantine area or to customers within about two miles of the homes of the Richland and Benton City flocks. The farm is inside the quarantine area, but not within two miles of either of the two flocks that were diagnosed with avian flu.
Mackey was concerned when the quarantine was announced because he wasn’t sure how he was going to keep his flock of 500 birds without the income from egg sales, he said. But the permit from the state Department of Agriculture will allow him to keep his business going for at least two months, which is the maximum length of time he’s hoping the quarantine will last.
It’s still a financial hit to not be able to deliver to all his normal clients. But, “We’ll get by until this quarantine ends,” Mackey said.
And they’ve been able to take on egg delivery for some families on their waiting list, he said. They normally have a waiting list because the farm is so small.
Mackey’s chickens are now enclosed in their houses, and don’t have access to their outdoor pens for now. He also has some new guidelines that must be followed in terms of disinfecting his vehicle and his clothing. His first deliveries under the new guidelines will be Jan. 16.
It bothers Mackey to have to keep his chickens in their houses, he said. But it’s what’s recommended in many situations, and is required for him to operate for now. The alternative would have been to slaughter the chickens, since he couldn’t sell them and wouldn’t be able to feed them if he wasn’t selling their eggs.
This way, they still get to live out their year at Red Mountain Egg Farm before being sold to other poultry owners to become breeders, clear fields, lay eggs or be raised for meat, Mackey said.
He’s found replacing his layers each year helps keep his egg production steady and maintain the quality of his farm’s eggs. He started his egg delivery business in 2010 after previously raising chickens in a backyard flock.